Crowdsourcing in life sciences: On the cusp of major change
by Dan Goldsmith
Crowdsourcing – the generation of data or insights through the contribution of many individual sources, often online – has been revolutionary for consumers, and is beginning to transform business. The advent of social media enables this powerful new way to collaboratively build information sets and harness the power of collective insights across multiple domains in the cloud (i.e., Wikipedia). Despite the industry’s cautious approach so far, crowdsourcing holds great promise for the life sciences industry for consumer engagement, conducting research, database management, and even developing products. This is especially true as bodies of collective knowledge become pervasive resources for patients, sometimes even replacing physician recommendations signifying today’s dramatic shift in influence.
Today, with the proliferation of information, most health consumers are better informed than in previous times. Crowdsourcing not only facilitates this change but makes it easy. Consequently, influence is shifting away from physicians to the networked masses sharing their collective knowledge online. Pharmaceutical companies have been creating forums that bring together patients for discussion, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Companies that find ways to capitalize on the information gained from the masses in online communities will have a competitive advantage.
Enter crowdsourcing – today’s most efficient way to reach bright minds on a global scale.
The primary concern for pharmaceutical companies considering crowdsourcing is that this is a legislative minefield. How do you control such a public forum that, by definition, becomes more influential the wider the net? But new technologies may offer ways to limit the risk. Advanced cloud technology is creating new avenues to bring together crowdsourced data in a responsible, validated way by enabling semi-private crowds to collaborate in controlled domains. For example, multiple companies in the life sciences industry can use crowdsourcing or even different teams or geographic regions within a single company.
Early success can be seen in research environments where there’s an enormous benefit to short-cutting some of the basic molecular research through collaboration. Lilly Ventures, for example, manages an open marketplace for transacting molecules. Also, Kaggle, with its cloud-based platform that connects companies to a community of more than 95,000 data scientists from more than 100 countries and 200 universities, provides a potential new model for molecular development using crowdsourcing. Last year, Boehringer Ingelheim partnered with Kaggle to use the knowledge from its online scientific community to help its scientists predict biological molecular response.
In another promising pharmaceutical research example, the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences created the Therapeutics Discovery pilot program this past March to bring life sciences companies together to reduce inefficiencies and drive innovation by re-engineering the research pipeline. By crowdsourcing compounds that have already cleared several key steps in the development process, including safety testing in humans, scientists nationwide can contribute their expertise to advancing these resources for new disease therapies. Abbott, Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen Pharmaceutical Research & Development, Sanofi, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Eli Lilly and Co. have joined the program.
“If a compound made available through the New Therapeutic Uses pilot program had five or more applications, we saw three or more different ideas for new indications,” says Dr. Christine Colvis, director of the NIH program. “Though we will not know the veracity of these predicted indications for another year or two, these early results suggest that crowdsourcing will be an effective complement to other means of identifying new indications for pharmaceutical compounds.”
Life sciences crowdsourcing is also making waves in the area of market research with help from cloud-based technologies. In 2010, InCrowd – a tech start-up headquartered in Boston – launched an on-demand platform that enables pharmaceutical companies to survey a growing database of pre-screened healthcare professionals across all therapeutic areas. Companies can conduct specialized micro-surveys that target specific segments of the database in real-time, with results delivered in days or even minutes via mobile device. The idea has taken off; InCrowd’s customers include more than 50 life sciences companies ranging from small biotechs to global pharmaceutical organizations.
“Crowdsourcing for market research is interesting by itself, but the real value added here is in being able to integrate the primary data garnered from highly targeted groups with how business decisions get made on a daily basis,” says Janet Kosloff, CEO and co-founder of InCrowd. “We use crowdsourcing techniques to provide life sciences companies with real-time actionable insights about their target markets rather than having to wait for a report from a lengthy market research project.”
The commercial space is the last frontier to adopt crowdsourcing methods in the industry, due to HIPAA and privacy concerns. “Privacy concerns and fear of an uncontrolled forum are both perceived roadblocks to crowdsourcing that can be overcome with the right combination of technology and services,” says Eric Newmark, program director, Business Systems Strategies for IDC Health Insights. “Multitenant cloud applications offer the potential to address these challenges and harness the ‘network effect’ of life sciences companies electing to work together.”
Fortunately, the technology is here. Each day, field teams are capturing the most current information available on healthcare practitioners and organizations within their customer relationship management systems. By using this continuous, real-time data stream to create a shared network accessible in the cloud, life sciences companies have the opportunity to create a single customer master reference data set that’s always more current, more accurate, and more complete than a static customer master database any one company can stitch together on its own. A multitenant technology platform enables the sharing of resources, and the cloud allows for continuous input to the data with easy access worldwide. The result is a “network effect,” or the crowdsourcing of commercial life sciences without the risks of uncontrolled social media feedback.
“Crowdsourcing is an incredibly useful approach to anything that isn’t your ‘secret sauce’ like physician names and addresses,” says Ian Elverson, manager of IT for Accera Pharmaceuticals. “Why should every pharmaceutical company on the planet expend massive energy just to compile basically the same exact list of doctors? As the guy responsible for keeping that database clean, I would value any shared, crowdsourced physician data so I could alternatively spend more of my time making the database more useful to our team in other ways.”
But the success of a crowdsourced database would hinge on the controls in place. “A totally freeform framework wouldn’t work simply because the data might be suspect,” Elverson says. “This was the initial problem with Wikipedia, but now Wikipedia has clear controls and more structure so companies have faith in the information published on the site. It’s all about building trust in the integrity of the data – with that, a network of basic physician data could alleviate many time-consuming, expensive data problems for pharmaceutical companies of all sizes.”
The life sciences industry has historically been slow to move on many of the great advances in the consumer world. Many organizations are recognizing that they can’t afford to be laggards anymore. The network effect brings together valuable, crowdsourced information in a responsible, validated way to meet the best interests of all pharmaceutical enterprises.
“If crowdsourcing techniques can help life sciences companies like ours better understand customers so that we can start to see trends on how patient care is evolving amidst changing government directives, then what are we waiting for?” asks Tom Helmstetter, director of information technology for Janssen. “This collective knowledge might show us how to adapt our business model to handle future challenges and help improve patient care – and that’s what is most important.”
Dan Goldsmith is general manager of the Veeva Network for Veeva Systems.
Posted: October 2013